This 1971 Stutz Blackhawk is a car as characteristic of its era as it is of its first owner. With a black exterior and interior, plenty of chrome and gold-wire wheels with wide whitewalls, nothing quite says “excess” like this Stutz. Or Elvis Presley. A generous potentate, the King of Rock & Roll was as flamboyant as the cars he bought for himself and his friends. After a few years of ownership, Elvis gifted his first Stutz to Elias Ghanem, the house doctor for the Las Vegas Hilton, who helped Elvis through a bout of pneumonia and purportedly discouraged the King’s penchant for prescription pills. Now the car may be just what the doctor ordered for any aficionado of both Elvis and automobiles as it crosses the block at the Mecum Auctions Las Vegas sale being held November 10 through 12.
In Mel Brooks’ 1967 comedy film The Producers, Zero Mostel’s character, the failing Broadway producer Max Bialystock, looks out of his squalid office window and hollers, “That’s it baby! When you’ve got it, flaunt it!” as a white Rolls-Royce comes into view below. When a year later, with no comedic pretensions and in all earnestness, New York banker James O’Donnell resurrected the Stutz name, it prefigured the now common trend of bringing long-dormant marques like Maybach and Bugatti back to life, names certainly synonymous with a high “flaunt” factor.
Yet at the time, O’Donnell’s venture—and his vision—represented a brave and novel endeavor. He didn’t just want to raise the name of a once-great automobile, he wanted a great automotive stylist to design it. So he commissioned Virgil Exner to create the Stutz Blackhawk coupe. Exner—no stranger to car buffs with a predilection for Jet-Age flair—had popularized tail fins in the 1950s when he headed the Chrysler design department, showing GM’s team a thing or two and even inspiring Italian coachbuilders of the era.
The original Stutz Motor Company operated from 1911 until 1935, and from the beginning, the Stutz Bearcat earned the company fame at the Indianapolis 500, going on to become the sports car of choice for American playboys. The new and unrelated Stutz Motor Car of America was founded in Indianapolis in 1968, leveraging a name that was still flickering in the memory of many older car enthusiasts. A number of two- and four-door models were offered from 1971 through 1995, with 617 examples delivered mostly through 1984, after which production slowed to a trickle.
By 1984, the Stutz Royal Limousine model—priced at an astounding US$285,000—was marketed as the “World’s Most Expensive Car,” while the Blackhawk coupe cost a “mere” US$115,000. The company’s most popular model was the Blackhawk, first shown in 1970 at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and produced through 1987. Named after the original Stutz model from 1929, it bore no resemblance and featured styling cues like a massive chrome grille, a swooping rear deck—through which the spare tire protruded—and bulging chrome headlamps, a retro-reference to the most elegant car designs of the 1920s.
The first Blackhawk prototype was constructed by Ghia, but Carrozzeria Padane in Modena made the bodies for the second prototype and first production cars, which, from 1972 onward, were produced by Carrozzeria Saturn near Turin. More than 1,500 hours of labor went into building and finishing each car. The bodies were initially mated to GM’s Pontiac Grand Prix chassis and powered by Pontiac’s 455 ci V-8 engine paired with a three-speed automatic transmission. Later cars used a Pontiac Bonneville or Oldsmobile Delta 88/Buick Le Sabre chassis, with smaller-displacement Pontiac, Ford, Chevrolet or Cadillac V-8 engines.
This was not the first time that Italian coachbuilders had been enlisted to marry reliable American underpinnings with costly and attractive hand-built bodies. Hybrids in the truest sense, such Italian-American creations are fascinating footnotes in automotive history. Companies like Iso, De Tomaso and Intermeccanica tried and failed, while big names like Cadillac had occasional flirtations with Pininfarina over the decades. But none of the others came close to the Stutz in expressing the gold-chain-and-cocktail-ring aesthetic of the age.
Stutz’s Blackhawk didn’t teeter on the precipice of excess: it plunged headlong over the edge. Standard features included faux side exhausts and forests of burl-wood paneling, while interior trim plated in 24-karat gold and mink carpeting were among the available options.
Elvis vied with Frank Sinatra to buy the first Blackhawk available for sale, acquiring it on October 9, 1970 for US$26,500. It was actually the second prototype built, as company founder O’Donnell drove the first one. Elvis would eventually own four Blackhawks. Dean Martin owned three and crashed one that had a license plate that read DRUNKY. Plenty of celebrities stuffed Blackhawk keys into the pockets of their leisure suits: Sammy Davis Jr., Robert Goulet, Liberace, Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Tom Jones, Willie Nelson, Wayne Newton, Johnny Cash, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney and Elton John all owned a Stutz. Sports figures also took their share of Blackhawks, including Muhammad Ali, George Forman and stunt daredevil Evel Knievel. Lucille Ball and Mrs. Sammy Davis each owned Blackhawks, as well.
Occupants were ensconced in quadrophonic sound over a then state-of-the-art Lear Jet AM/FM/eight-track system, which in this car’s case, has been replaced by a Sony AM/FM/CD stereo with remote control. Time—and music–marches on. The specific Blackhawk crossing the auction block has a burl dash that bears an engraved plaque that reads “Elias Ghanem A True Friend Elvis Presley,” and the car’s 1971 State of California New Vehicle ID shows the Stutz was originally registered to Elvis himself.
It’s only fitting that the legendary George Barris, designer of the Batmobile, originally detailed the car, which, after more than 51 years, shows just 31,856 miles on the odometer. We’d say it’s barely broken in. Offered by Mecum at no reserve, it’s anyone’s guess what this Elvismobile will bring.
Click here for more photos of the 1971 Stutz Blackhawk that once belonged to Elvis Presley.